Black peoples’ brains are, of course, no more or less peculiar than those of any other people. The human brain is an extraordinarily complex organ, and there are just as many differences between the brains of people from the same ethnic group as there between the brains of people from different groups.
Some racial peculiarities of the Negro brain is the title of a long and technical paper by the anthropologist Robert Bennett Bean, published in the American Journal of Anatomyin 1906. It is one of a series of scientific papers written by Bean in the early 20th Century, in which he tried to provide scientific evidence of the inferiority of black people.
A descendant of Thomas Jefferson, Bean was born on March 24th, 1874, in a town called Gala in Virginia County. He graduated from Johns Hopkins Medical School in 1904, and, between the years of 1905-1907, was an instructor in anatomy at the University of Michigan. It is during this period of his life that Bean began his investigations into “the Negro brain”.
In his comparisons of the brains of blacks and whites, Bean relied heavily on anthropometry and craniometry. He obtained most of his specimens from the Anatomical Laboratory and the Pathological Department at Johns Hopkins University, and some were given to him by a Dr. Page from the Baltimore City Alms House. Bean obtained 152 brains in total, of which 49 were from blacks, and 103 from whites. He dissected the specimens and drew outlines of individual brains to illustrate his paper. On the left is figure 5. The legend reads:
Negro male, age 45, No. 1681, length 163 cm., large and fat. Vertical, transverse sections. Section not quite transverse. No. 1 about 15 mm. from anterior end of brain; No. 2 about 45 mm. S, superior surface; R, right side. One third natural size.
Bean focuses on the corpus callosum, the bundle of approximately 100 million nerve fibres connecting the left and right hemispheres of the brain. The corpus callosum is divided anatomically into 4 regions. Anteriorly, the genu connects the left and right frontal lobes; the splenium connects the more posterior structures of the two hemispheres. Bean painstakingly tries to demonstrate that the genu is smaller in blacks than in whites, and to relate this to specific traits of both races:
It is generally understood that the posterior association center is objective, while the anterior association center is subjective, the one representing the powers of conception in the concrete, the other, the powers of thought in the abstract. The relative differences [between the brains of blacks and whites] is suggestive in relation to the known to the known characteristics of the two. The Caucasian is subjective, the Negro objective. The Caucasian…is dominant and domineering, and possessed primarily with determination, will power, self-control, self-government…with a high development of the ethical and aesthetic values…[whereas the] Negro is primarily affectionate, immensely emotional, then sensual and under stimulation passionate. There is love of ostentation…love of music, and capacity for melodious atriculation; there is undeveloped artistic power and taste…instability of character incident to lack of self-control, especially in connection with the sexual relation.
Bean was himself surprised by his findings, because the genu also contains olfactory fibres. And, at least according to Bean, we all know that black people have a highly developed sense of smell. That blacks have a smaller genu but a more sensitive sense of smell than white therefore seemed contradictory. So, it follows that in blacks the genu must consist largely of olfactory fibres. Bean took this as evidence of the intellectual inferiority of blacks. More importantly, the size of the genu reflects the relative sixe of the frontal lobes. And, because the frontal lobes are the seat of higher cognitive functions, and of intelligence, blacks must be intellectually inferior to whites.
It is evident that the frontal lobe of the Negro brain is smaller than the frontal lobe of the Caucasian brain. This racial difference has been recognized by anatomists heretofore, but in only a few individual cases has it been emphasized. Even [the great German anatomist Friedrich] Tiedemann, that eminent continental champion of the Negro…does admit that the frontal lobes of the Negro brain are smaller than those of the European.
Like most racists, Bean concentrated on a specific target (black people) but extended his findings to other groups (women and the underprivileged). He found that, in both blacks and whites, the genu was smaller in women than in men. When Bean’s paper was published, brain size was the classic parameter used by craniometrists. But Bean omits comparative measurements of brain size from his paper. He did measure brain size and cranial capacity of blacks and whites, but failed to find any significant differences in his measurements. Bean introduced other factors – sex and social class – to account for his failure to find a difference in brain size.In an addendum at the end of his 1906 paper, he explains:
There is a large number of deaths resulting from acute illnesses and from accidents among the Negroes, giving a large number of brains from normal individuals….a large number of Negro bodies are regularly disposed of to anatomists indicates less respect for the dead among Negroes…it follows that more of the better class of Negroes would be received, since the whites greatly outnumber the blacks in Baltimore. It is well known that only the lowest classes of whites are unclaimed, especially among the women, who are apt to be prostitutes, or depraved, or the like, while among the Negroes it is well known that even the better class neglect their dead…It is a well attested fact that the Negroes are roaming over the country without fixed abode in greater numbers than the whites and this might result in many stray unclaimed bodies of the better classes of Negroes being turned over to anatomists, and finally, many mulattoes and and mixed bloods are included among the Negroes.
Thus, according to Bean, the reason that he found no difference between the brains of blacks and those of whites is because he was measuring the brains of higher classes of blacks with those of the lowest classes of whites. The degenerate whites in his sample suffered from various wasting diseases, which would have a major effect on brain size. And, to complicate matters further, some of the blacks in the sample were of mixed race; having one white parent would, of course, make a black person’s brain more closely resemble that of a white person. Naturally, if one were to use more comparable specimens, the differences between the races would be even clearer.
Bean’s mentor, Franklin P. Mall, who had initially encouraged the study, thought the data were too good, and became suspicious. He therefore made his own comparisons of brains from blacks and whites, and failed to find any difference, even though he performed the same measurements as Bean, and his sample contained 18 brains – 8 from blacks and 10 from whites – used by Bean himself. Of those 18 specimens, Beans measurements of the genu were larger than Moll’s for 7 out of 10 of the brains from whites, but for only 1 out of 8 of the brains from blacks.
In 1914, Bean published another paper, entitled A racial peculiarity in the pole of the temporal lobe of the Negro brain in a journal called Anatomical Record. In this paper, Bean he reached the following conclusions:
The size of the pole of the temporal lobe is less in the Negro than in the white, and less in the Negro female than in the Negro male…The shape of the pole of the temporal lobe is different in the two races, being slightly more slender in the Negro, and almost the same size in the two races antero-posteriorly. The differences are not only absolute but are also relative to the to the weight and size of the entire cerebral hemispheres.
Bean was either extremely deluded, or a fraud, or both. He was certainly a bad scientist, and his methodology is a perfect example of poor scientific practice. His prejudices led him to believe that “the Negro evidently stands in an intermediate position [between]… man and the ourang-outang” (1906, p.380)and he had already reached his conclusion – that blacks are inferior to whites – before undertaking his investigations. Consequently, it was this conclusion that informed his data, and not the data that led him to his conclusion.
Nevertheless, his work was not restricted to academic journals – it had huge popular appeal. In 1907, one year after the publication of Some racial peculiarities of the Negro brain, an editorial in American Medicine discussse the implications of Bean’s findings on society:
the anatomical basis for the complete failure of of the negro schools to impart the higher studies – the brain cannot comprehend them any more than a horse can understand the rule of three…[and] leaders in all political parties now acknowledge the error of human equality…It may be practicable to rectify the error and remove a menace to our prosperity – a large electorate without brains.
Any rational person will quickly dismiss Bean’s findings as nonsense. The “distinguished” anthropologist manipulated his data to make them fit with his preconceived racist ideas. Unfortunately, these data on the differences between the brains of blacks and whites are still used today by far right extremists to justify the racial hatred that they preach.
Bean, R. B. (1906). Some racial peculiarities of the Negro brain. Am J. Anat. 5: 353-432. [PDF]
Bean, R. B. (1914). A racial peculiarity in the pole of the temporal lobe of the Negro brain. Anat. Rec. 8: 479-491. [Abstract]